Such executions are considered a war crime, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch noted in a statement released in August 2011, referring to the episode. The 17 employees of the French branch of the international aid agency Action Against Hunger (ACF) were found dead in the agency’s office in Mutur. Fifteen of the employees had been shot in the head. Two had been shot in the back, as though they had been trying to escape their attackers, agency officials said at the time. They all wore T-shirts bearing the agency’s name. Action Against Hunger worked on tsunami reconstruction and provided water and sanitation services to people displaced by war.
However, these allegations were rejected as being “baseless” by Colombo and further strained the already difficult relations between the Swedish-led ceasefire monitors who were in the country at the time and the government of Sri Lanka.
These deaths came as the country continued down the path to renewed civil war and resulted in the army opening a fresh front against Tamil Tiger separatist rebels around the eastern town of Sampur. The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) in response to the killing issued a statement blaming the killings of the aid workers from the French group Action Against Hunger which took place between August 3 and 5, on government forces who were fighting rebels in the town on Mutur at that time. It was reported that the 17 aid workers who were shot, were ethnic Tamils except one. They had been working on tsunami relief projects and had been wearing t-shirts identifying them as humanitarian workers and had been made to kneel and were subsequently shot.
The statement, issued by the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, cited three reasons for its conclusion. First, it noted, security forces had been in Mutur at the time of the killings. Second, the government had barred the monitors from the scene immediately after the bodies had been discovered. Third, confidential conversations with “highly reliable sources” had pointed to the culpability of the security forces.
No other group, the Monitoring Mission concluded, would have been in a position to carry out the killings, which it called a “gross violation” of the tattered cease-fire. The SLMM said "highly reliable sources" had discussed the killings with its chief monitor; the monitors saw the government's refusal to grant them access to the scene of the killings as a deliberate effort to "conceal the matter". However, the government condemned the SLMM report, saying it was based on speculation, not evidence. The SLMM was set up to oversee a Norwegian-brokered ceasefire in 2002.
Presidential panel inquiry
President Mahinda Rajapaksa ordered an investigation with immediate effect in 2006 into the murder of 17 local employees of the French Charity and six other cases. The Presidential Panel, which comprised of 11 senior foreign diplomats and dignitaries, was headed by retired Supreme Court Judge Nissanka Udalagama. It was said to have carried out 18 investigations.
The Presidential Commission of Inquiry, established in November 2006 to investigate 16 major human rights cases, publicly announced its findings in the ACF case. The commission exonerated the Sri Lankan army and navy in the ACF killings, primarily on limited witness testimony that these forces were not in the vicinity at the time. It blamed the killings on either the LTTE or auxiliary police known as home guards. Its full report to the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, remains unpublished.
The commission rejected the detailed findings of the nongovernmental University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), which in April 2008 published eyewitness accounts, weapons analysis, and information on the government security forces that it believed were responsible for the atrocity. However, the commission chair told the media that the commission was hindered by the absence of a witness-protection programme and noted that the government blocked video testimonies that would have permitted at-risk witnesses to testify from outside the country.
Excerpts from the commission's final report posted on the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence website sharply criticize the role of local organizations in the ACF inquiry. These organizations provided legal support for witnesses and made a number of written submissions on the case. The commission stated that the "main function" of seven named nongovernmental organizations was to "attempt to discredit every possible institution and authority of this country before the Commission, and attempted to hold one party responsible for the gruesome crime.... They appeared not to ascertain the truth but to engage in a fault finding exercise of the security forces of Sri Lanka." The commission said the groups adopted "a suspiciously narrow outlook" and engaged in a "preconceived plan or conspiracy to discredit the Commission ... for the consumption of some of the international organizations."
"The evidence that was laid before us is that not a single witness stated before us that they saw the army around the place at the relevant time," the head of the commission, retired Nissanka Udalagama, informed the BBC's Sinhala service in July 2009 upon completion of the inquiry. "The entire town was taken over by the LTTE [Tamil Tiger rebels] at the time. The LTTE said on their website that they had taken over the town of Mutur," he said. The Defence spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella had however earlier claimed that Mutur was under the complete control of the military at the time of the massacre. Judge Udalagama said he "believed that information to be incorrect".
He further informed the BBC: "we got the army to give evidence. The officer in charge of the contingent which came to Mutur from Jaffna gave evidence. He denied Rambukwella's statement. We would have liked to have Rambukwella's evidence, but because of time limits, we were unable to do so." "There was other evidence like the presence of Muslim home guards. They had access to the weapons. And it could have been LTTE," Judge Udalagama said.
The report also found the French charity to be at fault. "They also have to take a portion of the blame, they have to enhance the compensation given to the people," Judge Udalagama said.
Report by the international commission of jurists (icj)
In the face of the situation and the subsequent inquiry carried out the Presidential Panel, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) released a report of its observer in April 2007 of the inquest into the killings of the 17 aid workers in Sri Lanka. Senior British barrister, Michael Birnbaum QC, found significant flaws in the investigation carried out by the local police and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and found particular fault with the fact that the CID had not identified the perpetrators of this crime.
The report recommended the establishment of a team independent of the police and security forces to investigate this crime, to identify the perpetrators and to report to the Attorney-General, who should then ensure that those responsible are prosecuted. he ICJ also recommends the establishment of a comprehensive witness protection programme.
The ICJ's observer based his report on his observation of inquest proceedings in Kantale in November 2006 and March 2007; analysis of court records, police reports and forensic reports; and meetings with both Magistrates who heard the inquest, the CID, the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice and Law Reforms, and the lawyer for the families of the victims, amongst others. The report examined in detail the police investigation into the killings and the course of the inquest proceedings.
The report stated “The ICJ acknowledges the inherent difficulty of investigating serious crimes such as these killings, particularly in the context of a violent armed conflict and that the CID's investigation is continuing. Nevertheless, the observer identifies evidence of a disturbing lack of impartiality, transparency and effectiveness of the investigation to date, including the following:
- Official police reports indicate that from the outset, prior to any investigation, the police had decided that the LTTE were responsible for the killing.
- Collection of evidence has been incomplete and inadequate. In particular, the CID has not interviewed any member of the Sri Lankan security forces, nor any Tamil, apart from the family members of those killed.
- There are a number of unanswered questions as to the finding, description and transmission of the ballistic exhibits. The observer made a detailed analysis of the relevant documents and reports and found many apparent inconsistencies. Concern is raised regarding the failure of police to obey certain orders made by the second Magistrate, in particular an order that the ballistics exhibits should only be opened in the presence of an Australian expert.”
The ICJ also made a number of recommendations including that the Government of Sri Lanka should:
- establish a team of investigators independent of the police and security forces to investigate this crime and identify the perpetrators;
- establish a witness protection programme that could include provision of protection by security personal not associated in any way with the Sri Lankan police or military, use of pseudonyms for witnesses, evidence given in camera, evidence given via video link, relocation of witnesses, including the possibility of relocation outside of Sri Lanka;
- seriously consider reforms of the criminal justice system to ensure impartial and effective investigations and independent decisions as to prosecution.
The report said official reports indicated that police had decided from the outset that Tamil rebels were responsible for the killing of the aid workers, all but one of whom were ethnic Tamils. The report said the collection of evidence had been incomplete and inadequate. It also made recommendations to the Presidential Commission of Inquiry appointed in November 2006 to look into 15 specific past human rights violations, regarding witnesses it may wish to call and lines of enquiry that could be pursued.
The Sri Lankan government's gross mishandling of the investigation into the execution-style slaying of 17 aid workers in the northeastern town of Mutur demonstrates the need for an international commission of inquiry, Human Rights Watch stated in a press release in August 2009. "For three years since the ACF massacre, the Rajapaksa government has put on an elaborate song and dance to bedazzle the international community into believing justice is being done," said James Ross, legal and policy director at Human Rights Watch. "It's time the UN and concerned governments say ‘the show is over' and put into place a serious international inquiry."
The media reported that the Sri Lankan authorities have also placed improper pressure on the families of the ACF victims. "Instead of doing all it can to get justice for this horrific crime, the Sri Lankan government is further traumatizing the ACF victims' families by trying to shift the blame to others," Ross said.
Human Rights Watch called for the United Nations secretary-general or other UN body to create an international commission of inquiry to investigate the ACF killings and other human rights abuses by all parties to the armed conflict in Sri Lanka, and make recommendations for the prosecution of those responsible. Human Rights Watch has long reported on the government's failure to impartially investigate and prosecute those responsible for the numerous human rights abuses committed during the armed conflict with the Tamil Tigers, which ended in May 2009 with the Tigers' defeat.
Human Rights Watch previously criticized the Presidential Commission of Inquiry for being an insufficient governmental response to ongoing human rights abuses, the absence of a presidential obligation to act on its recommendations or make its findings public, and improper interference in the commission by the attorney general. In April 2008, the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) withdrew from its role monitoring the commission because it had "not been able to conclude ... that the proceedings of the Commission have been transparent or have satisfied basic international norms and standards."
In the face of external pressure on accountability issues, the government assured the international community in Geneva last week it would reopen investigations into the 17 aid workers at Mutur. Former Attorney General Mohan Peiris gave this assurance during an interactive session with representatives of countries interested in the Sri Lanka issue.
Amnesty International officials asked what happened to the investigations into the killing of five students on January 2, 2006 and said the government had taken little or no action even five years after the killings had taken place. Mr. Peiris who was one of the panelists said the government had in no way swept everything under the carpet. He said the matter had been investigated and the government would reopen the case to ascertain the truth behind some of the allegations. When AI questioned as to why the government did not publish the report of the commission appointed to look into 16 such incidents including the killings in Trincomalee, Mr. Peiris said the document was not meant to be published and had been handed over to the President and the French Embassy in Colombo.
The Human Rights Council’s members have currently submitted a draft resolution against Sri Lanka at the initiative of the United States, to demand action from Sri Lanka on uncovering the truth and achieving some real accountability.
This was proven beyong doubt that it was done by LTTE to put blame on security forces and stop advancement of srilanka army in eastern province. Where is accountability of killing of thousands of innocents by LTTE in all over the country? Who is questioning it? Why does people talk about this one incident when UNHCR is progressing?
Comments will be edited (grammar, spelling and slang) and authorized at the discretion of Daily Mirror online. The website also has the right not to publish selected comments.